These days are different at Suffolk Downs. Once a bustling source of entertainment, the track is now unoccupied, the grandstands empty. Dust has accumulated on the upstairs tables. On the 161-acre complex, the only semblance of activity is on the downstairs televisions, where horse races simulcast from around the country remind locals that racing is no longer here.
Suffolk is a skeleton of its former self. But for six days this year, thousands of fans will fill the grandstand again to watch races at the 82-year-old track.
The track will host three two-day events of thoroughbred racing, starting this Saturday and Sunday (post time Saturday is 12:35 p.m). The next sets will be Aug. 5-6 and Sept. 2-3. The live cards will have purses of nearly $500,000 per day, including a $75,000 purse for a race Saturday in honor of jockey Jill Jellison, who died less than two years ago.
But the days of live racing at Suffolk are numbered. The HYM Investment Group, a Boston-based real estate firm, bought the property May 26 for a reported $155 million. The company plans to use the massive space to build a compound of offices, restaurants, and shops, potentially one of Boston’s largest redevelopment projects. It is expected to require more than a decade to finish. The company leased the property back to Suffolk Downs so racing could continue for the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
“We are all living with those consequences and trying to make the best for what is not an easy situation,” said Chip Tuttle, Suffolk Downs chief operating officer.
With horses no longer roaming the track every day, Suffolk Downs officials searched for world-class horses, jockeys, and trainers for the upcoming events. Christophe Clement, Wesley Ward, Steve Asmussen, and Nick Zito headline a Hall of Fame-caliber group of trainers sending horses to East Boston this weekend.
Lou Raffetto, now a consultant for the Suffolk Downs horsemen after serving as track vice president for nine years, said there are a number of ways to entice trainers. Suffolk offers a mix of races that many other tracks don’t, and the $500,000 in daily purses is one of the highest totals on the East Coast. Several of this year’s trainers formerly worked at Suffolk Downs, giving them incentive to return.
Craft beer, food trucks, and live music also will be provided.
There’s a reason for all of the effort being put into this event.
“We are trying to save racing in Massachusetts,” Raffetto said. “Hopefully this is a conduit to a bigger and better thing in the future.”
The demise of Suffolk Downs has been brewing for years. From 2007-14, Suffolk struggled to fill the track for its simulcasts, and nearly had to shut down. According to Tuttle, only 2,000 people on average showed up per race day in 2014.
Suffolk Downs also failed to win a casino license, which would have attracted more people to the track.
In 2015, the Massachusetts Legislature changed its simulcasting regulations, ruling that tracks could remain in business for simulcasting only if live racing was conducted at least one day of the year.
Tuttle said more than 7,000 people have attended the live cards each of the past two years, a significant improvement from 2014.
“In some ways, we found that less is more,” Tuttle said. “We are able to offer only a few days of racing, so it’s a bit of a novelty. People come out to support it.”
As Suffolk Downs nears its closure, the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association is searching for locations for a new track in Massachusetts.
HBPA executive director Paul Umbrello, who is headlining the search, hopes to use a new facility for more than just racing. He envisions a 1-mile track for racing that also incorporates equestrian events, a farmer’s market, and a retirement facility for horses that no longer race. He would even entertain the idea of an indoor rodeo.
“It’s not so much about the caliber of horses,” Umbrello said. “To me, people there are there for everything else — food, music, museums. They are there for entertainment.”
Indeed, Tuttle called the horse racing faithful “loyal but limited.”
Umbrello noted that Fenway Park conducts concerts and sports events aside from baseball to boost revenue. He feels a sprawling track can offer the same.
He has had discussions on four Massachusetts sites, though he wouldn’t disclose them.
Two years ago, he said, building this type of facility would have been a long shot.
“If you ask me today, we aren’t the favorite, but we aren’t double-digit odds,” Umbrello said. “All we can do is keep trying. We are going to keep fighting until someone pulls the plug out from underneath us.”